Today’s blue-collar workers are tomorrow’s “green-collar” workers — or so politicians would have us believe. Plans to combat climate change are increasingly touted as job creation schemes. “For too long, we’ve failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis: jobs,” Joe Biden, US president, told Congress last week. Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, has promised a “green industrial revolution” which he says will “create and support” up to 250,000 British jobs.
It is politically savvy to tie climate change policies (or indeed any policy) to the promise of new jobs. It is also true that greening our economies can create opportunities for places that need them. Siemens Gamesa opened a wind turbine factory in Hull on England’s north east coast in 2016 which employs some 750 workers, for example. Now there are plans to double its size.
But policymakers need more than boosterism to manage the transition well. The truth is that the road to “net zero” will destroy jobs in some carbon-intensive sectors, even as it creates new ones elsewhere. And some activities will not need as many workers as before.
Wind farms, once up and running, do not require as much labour as digging-up coal. As economist Tyler Cowen points out, this is to be welcomed: less labour-intensive energy should mean cheaper bills, eventually. But it still means the loss of good jobs in workplaces like coal fired power stations. Sue Ferns, senior deputy general secretary at Prospect, a union which represents energy workers, says these tend to be “the best quality and highest paying jobs in the areas in which they’re located”.
The closure of the Redcar steel plant on England’s east coast in 2015 shows how badly the loss of good jobs can play out. While 80 per cent of the more than 2,000 workers affected found work within a year, a report by David Coats of Leicester university found the difference in their incomes was stark. Four in five workers earned £30,000 a year or more while employed at the steel plant, but only one in three did in their new jobs. The government set up a task force which paid for workers to retrain. But while workers took an average of four short courses each, only one in five said it helped them to find a new job.
Unlike the surprise closure in Redcar, the advantage of the transition to “net zero” is that it allows policymakers to predict in advance where workers will be most affected, and where new skills and investment will be needed. The German government appointed a Coal Commission in 2018, for example, which identified the jobs that would be affected by the plan to phase out coal-fired power stations by 2038. It investigated the demographics of affected regions and the extent to which they could build on current strengths to become leaders in alternatives such as green hydrogen.
Similarly, Canada has established a “Taskforce on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities”, which has recommended, among other things, funding for local “transition centres” in the communities set to be most affected.
In the UK, some work is happening at ground level. Energy companies EDF Energy and RWE have recently run a programme with Prospect, the union, to help raise awareness and confidence among workers in coal and gas-fired power stations about what it is like to work on the renewables side, with speakers who have made the shift talking about their experiences.
But the UK government shows little sign of convening employers and unions to make detailed plans at a national or sectoral level. Nor has it published granular analysis on the geographical distribution of the jobs that will be most affected by the transition to net zero.
Worst of all, it seems unable to join the dots to help create new jobs where needed. The Construction Industry Training Board says that to retrofit homes to improve energy efficiency and low-carbon heating (both needed if the UK is to meet its climate targets), the sector needs an extra 200,000 workers through to 2050. There are almost 800,000 16 to 24-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training. Yet rather than provide incentives to households to spur demand, and fund apprenticeships to meet it, the government announced a “Green Homes Grant” voucher scheme last year, bungled its implementation, and scrapped it in March.
It is possible to chart a course towards a green economy that sustains decent new jobs. But it requires realism, seriousness and attention to detail. The UK government’s fondness for bluff and bluster won’t be enough.